After Kurdish Attacks, Turkish Nationalism Surges

As Turkey’s streets explode in a sea of red – the supposedly secular symbol of the crescent moon & star – the rage is palpable. All over Istanbul and throughout Turkey, the republican flag is flying from windows and cars, and Saturday night streets erupt suddenly in cheers and clapping as gaggles of protesters stream by.

They are angrily mourning the death of 24 Turkish soldiers killed last Wednesday in an ambush by the PKK, the outlawed Kurdistan's Worker's Party, a terrorist group infamous for their guerrilla tactics across Turkey's rugged South East.

The attack, the deadliest in nearly 20 years, has incited the historically bellicose Turkish state to retaliate, stepping up the small, permanent force across the Iraqi border into a full-fledged international aerial attack in a hunt for the mountain hideaways of the wily PKK. Since Wednesday, scores more have been killed, the usual mix of suspects and civilians.

The tone of public anger is deafeningly nationalistic. Dating back to the ideology of Mustafa Kemal ‘Atatürk,’ Republican Turkey has a tendency to be, perhaps, more nationalistic than most. Modern Turkey emerged from Atatürk’s success in uniting the shreds of the hugely disparate Ottoman empire under the banner of a secular republic, supposedly indifferent to variance in language & ethnicity.

The confusion arises in that the description of Turkish citizenship conflates with that of the Turkish race; the two distinct meanings of ‘nationality’ so frequently equated. Kurds are citizens of Turkey, but they are not ethnically Turks themselves. The thirty years of violence which claimed 30,000 lives in eastern Anatolia have made it publicly irreconcilable to be Turkish as well as Kurdish. Being a ‘Turkish Kurd’ is simply not as valid as being, say, an ‘Iraqi Kurd’ or a ‘Syrian Christian.’

Whenever violence arises and the situation goes awry, the problems are ‘the Kurdish issue,’ the slogans stamped on banners proclaim ‘how happy I am to be a Türk,’ and the flag flown is the symbol of a republic which, over its nearly 100-year history, has become increasingly more homogenous (in reality and in its rhetorical descriptions of itself). From the brutal population exchanges of the 1920s to the long-standing illegality of speaking Kurdish, ethnic nationalism has almost always underwritten Turkish domestic policy. But Turkey, home to almost 20 million of the world's 30 million Kurds, as well as Antioch's Syrian Arabs, the blue-eyed Georgian's of the Black Sea, and the paltry remains of formerly vibrant Greek, Armenian, and Jewish populations, is nowhere near as homogenous as it claims to be.

Officially, the outrage is directed not at Kurds in general, but at the ideology and tactics of the separatist and violent PKK. To its credit, the Turkish state has in recent years displayed greater willingness to separate the rights of their Kurdish citizens from the ‘immense revenge’ inflicted on the armed agitators who claim to speak in all their names. They have de-criminalized the official use of Kurdish, instituted a Kurdish-language state television channel, and begun the (long) process of allowing Kurdish to be taught in schools.

Seen from afar, these allowances fit comfortably with an ideology of unity based on citizenship. But amid the anger surrounding the death of the young soldiers, there swells the uncomfortable criticism that such leniency has strengthened Kurdish understanding of their difference, adding motivation to secede.

True to the perennial discussions of politicians, coffee tables, and Georgetown classrooms, the escalating violence can be seen in two lights, and opposing understandings of effect and cause. Either such tokens of liberal leniency have only strengthened the enemies of the state, or the killings are the inevitable consequence of decades-long policies of a heavy-handed state, as blindly faithful to its founding ideology as it is intransigent to heterogeneity within its borders.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons